If people stepped outside their comfort zones and sought deep friendships w/people unlike themselves, we’d see less bigotry, period. Humans are generally lazy about acknowledging and accepting difference unless confronted with their own bias. And even then, it’s still a herculean effort to effect lasting change. What a sorry lot we are.

That was a Facebook post I wrote yesterday after watching the pathetic display put on by the right in response to Rick Perry’s “N*ggerhead” family hunting farm flap. The commentary on Red State morphed quickly into liberals harping unfairly on Perry and  Herman Cain getting pummeled for saying:

“Since Governor Perry has been going there for years to hunt, I think that it shows a lack of sensitivity for a long time of not taking that word off of that rock and renaming the place.”

Being accused of being a racist is by a party that deals in plenty of dog-whistles about race. It’s laughable. And Herman Cain learned quite quickly that the topic or racial division is off-limits, even for a black man who knows all too well that “N*ggerhead” meant exactly what everyone knows it meant.

In Texas, where I live (and was born), there are many people who think that their private racism is “just between us white folks (wink)”, but that being loudly and publicly bigoted is gauche.
– James Emory Bridges on Facebook

I’m sure Herman Cain feels every bit of his blackness right about now as the right-wing blames him for Perry’s little race problem.

Perry and his family’s legacy with “N*ggerhead” is about race and racism. Those running to his defense just need to cut the bullsh*t, own it and move on. What we do not know is whether Perry personally still holds bigoted views. Is this relevant, or do actions speak louder than words. He’s made minority appointments, but he’s also been quick on the execution trigger, in a criminal justice system that is not free of bias in the least.

The major unexamined issue here is the “just between us white folks (wink)” racism that is still prevalent and just as toxic for us as a society. Most people know they cannot be openly racist in public (well, most know), but in private, closed social circles, I doubt much has changed. Would they let their son/daughter date outside of their race? Or even have close friends of another race?

When it comes to lasting change, people should do the right thing because it comes naturally to them, not because a law tells them that racism in public policy is not acceptable. That’s why this story is interesting, and rather than defend Perry and his family’s insensitivity for such a long period of time, why not turn the discussion into an examination of why they were comfortable with that rock’s adornment for so long, and what evolution in their thinking (aside from public pressure not to be openly racist) occurred. Too much of this story is of the “gotcha” nature and not about the deeper problems about race that we rarely discuss.

***

Race and growing up in the 1960s-70s

I’ve always been interested in people who were from different backgrounds, races, religions. Growing up in North Carolina in the late 60s, I went to a Catholic school (I was raised Episcopalian; more on my relationship re: organized religion here) from K-6, and what I remember most is that I had playmates of different backgrounds and races. I identify as black –both of my parents and grandparents are as well. An aside – it’s only been in the last 10-15 years or so that people have asked me if I’m biracial; so a nation’s perception of the “definition” of a light-skinned person of color has obviously changed over time.  It only proves just how ridiculous this artificial construct of race is; yet any discussion about it is fraught with land mines.

I never really thought about color, really. I did, however, notice my hair was definitely different.  The politics of hair —  something young black women learn early on a superficial basis (don’t let it get wet, or it will “go back”; the pain of the hot comb, the burning of the relaxer) — but goes unexplored or challenged until later in life — if at all.

My mom always read to my brother and I as long as I can remember, so I was voraciously reading at 4. I read the entire World Book encyclopedia — in my closet, no less, when I was 6-7.  I attended public school for one year in Durham, NC; it was seventh grade and I went to Pearsontown (today it’s an elementary school). As I was always kind of awkward – a geek, I did well academically and mostly kept to myself. I even helped out the teacher after school to grade papers before getting on the school bus. The school was easily 70% black at the time, maybe more. What I did notice, given I was a “new kid”, was that it was hard to make friends.

I endured taunts from some of the kids that I was “acting white” because I was studious; a pathology that plays out in too many schools today, sadly. This made no sense to me back then, because I knew plenty of black kids I attended during my time in Catholic school who were bookish as well.

The one incident that made me fully aware of my blackness occurred during that year at Pearsontown. The English teacher, Mrs. Williams, came up to me one day and whispered to me – “You’ve made the honor roll — you’re the first black student to do this.” She seemed so happy for me, proud of the accomplishment.

My heart sank. I remember this well because I wanted to cry. I realized that here I was, in a school full of kids who looked like me, who were not able to achieve what seemed to me an easy task. None of my classes were hard. I asked myself, how can this be?

Of course, at that age, there isn’t an answer that makes any sense when your mind has not been polluted with color-aroused thinking.

NYC: It’s a different world

My parents split (that’s a mess worthy of a book), and my mom, brother and I ended up with little more than the clothes on our back where we lived with my mom’s sisters in their house. The three of us squeezed into one room, but it was a roof over our heads. That was 1976 in the predominantly black neighborhood of Hollis, Queens (home to Run-DMC!), when NYC was, to be kind, a crime-ridden hell-hole. Living through the 1977 blackout, the chaos, the rioting, sanitation strikes, you name it. Not a pleasant place to be a kid living on a shoe string.

Of course this horror is all in hindsight – it became a peculiar norm; we walked around fairly independently. In retrospect, my mom was nothing like the helicopter parents of today; we had a lot of freedom to go about the city on our own, came home when expected, etc. I guess she was lucky; we kept out of trouble.

So when it came time for me to go to high school, I took the test to get into one of the three elite specialized public high schools at the time, Stuyvesant, in lower Manhattan, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. I landed my first choice, Stuy, since who as a kid wouldn’t want to go to school in Manhattan! Taking the subway by yourself, meeting kids from all over the 5 boroughs; I thought it was exciting. Certainly a better option than going to my dangerous zoned school.

There’s nothing like looking outside your window and watching a car getting stripped.

Racial tension ruled the news in NY during the late 70s-80s. I learned quickly that as a person of color, there were clear “Sundown Towns” we knew not go to – Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Howard Beach. If you were black, the odds of getting mugged, beaten or worse were confirmed in the headlines almost every day.

During my years at Stuy, we moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, to our own apartment, which also shortened my commute time to school by half. Again, the neighborhood was practically all black, and police presence was nowhere to be found. In some cases that was a plus, because it wasn’t uncommon for police to do a beatdown on any random black man near the scene of a crime.

On some days the lack of police presence was laughably lacking — there was a corner store (on Reid and MacDonough) that was called “Super Burger Jack”. Oddly enough, it was only open at night, and I saw no one leaving with a sack of burgers and fries. Police cars rolled by all the time, never checking this joint out. Yes, I did watch a car being stripped from my apartment window. There wasn’t any point calling the police back in the day. If they did show (and that was random), the strip specialists would be gone.

Of course my experience with theft while living in NYC was quite amusing. We had a piece-of-sh*t 1973 Ford Pinto station wagon (you know, with the fake wood-grain siding), and I came out to go to the store and fired it up. Nothing happened. I did this a couple of times and then opened the hood — someone had stolen the battery. Yes, they left the car and just took the battery. Ford – Quality is Job One.

Bed-Stuy, by the way, is today a gentrified neighborhood with a much more diverse population — it’s still shocking to see white couples pushing strollers there when I visit my family. See my post, My Bed-Stuy. The economics of living in NY has caused a level of integration that hasn’t been seen since my mother grew up in Bed-Stuy during the Depression, when everyone was poor, and you went to school with kids of all races and ethnicities. Some things come full circle.

Stuyvesant High School – the melting pot – 1977-1981

While living in the ‘hood could have scarred any one into a state of cynicism of race relationship, I credit my time at Stuyvesant for helping to continue cultivating my open state of mind about social diversity at a time when things may have turned out differently.

Like most schools in the U.S., Stuy’s lunchroom reflected some of the social segregation phenomenon seen in schools around the country. However there was a section of the lunchroom that was home to my group of fellow-geek friends. We shared the desire to learn more about the differences in race, religion, ethnicities of one another as well as what bands and radio stations you listened to. I guess our commonality is that we were all a bit eccentric, not part of the popular crowd by any stretch of the imagination.

Speaking of music – back then I didn’t see the strict balkanization of genres that often occurs on racial/cultural lines today on radio. One of the most listened-to stations in NYC at the time was Musicradio WABC. You heard a mix of songs that crossed many genres. Take this list from 1976. And we all listened to Album Oriented Rock (AOR) on WPLJ; Disco, R&B on WKTU. The nascent punk scene’s music was also popular. None of these polarizing lines existed in my social circle to tell me that my racial and cultural identity was tied to what genre of songs you liked.

Let’s just say I’m glad I missed out on that color-aroused bullsh*t 30 years ago.

2011 – My 30th Stuy High Reunion

Last month I attended my 30th Reunion. I was excited about attending. I still have good friends from those days, as well as many more people that I keep up with on Facebook, which is nice. See my album of photos.

Unlike reunions I’ve heard about from friends, there was no awkwardness at all; in fact I picked up conversations with some people I don’t regularly communicate with as if it were yesterday. One common theme in some of my discussions was how we all felt grateful for that moment in time where there were so many of us able to, without any effort, cross those racial, religious, ethnic lines to become friends at an age where, sadly, a lot of young people have already absorbed the belief of sticking “with your own” and staying in a comfort zone.

I nearly came to tears a couple of times in conversations because it pained us to see such boundaries erected so early for so many. I feel like many of us escaped some horrible fate – the fear of “other”, and how hard it is to continue to foster it and hold on to it. Nearly every signal in our political culture tells you to thrive by crawling up society’s ladder and pulling it up behind you, that you don’t want your kids going to school with “those people”, trying to resegregate in the name of “neighborhood schools” driving by classist lines.

What was different back in the day? Racial tension was strong then. Why is it so much harder now to see what education, and open-mindedness can reap in terms of a better world for us all?

Why are we so scared/lazy to extend past social comfort zones to befriend someone who’s not just like you? It’s the only way to change our private, social “Isms” that continue to let bias thrive.

Is our American culture, polluted by its racial history, something that we cannot change? I don’t think so. But I do think we honestly don’t try enough because of the fear of defensiveness, and that bridging and learning about difference is seen as hard work — “why bother with it?”

Well, when you don’t bother with working out your personal biases, you get the politics and public policy (or lack thereof) that you deserve. It’s “N*ggerhead” today, it’ll be something else tomorrow, and people will circle the wagons again. And race will continue to be the toxic topic that is avoided, but colors everything.

Sad.

***

In case you’re wondering…this was the playlist at the reunion:

REUNION PLAYLIST
Feels So Good Chuck Mangione 1978
Sailing Christopher Cross 1980
Year Of The Cat Al Stewart 1977
Stumblin’ in Suzi Quatro & Chris Norman 1979
Love Will Find A Way Pablo Cruise 1978
Hot Child In The City Nick Gilder 1978
Rich Girl Hall & Oates 1977
I don’t like mondays Boomtown Rats 1979
Blinded By The Light Manfred Mann 1977
Solsbury Hill Peter Gabriel 1977
Hey Nineteen Steely Dan 1980
Mainstreet Bob Seger 1977
Jammin’ Bob Marley & the Wailers 1977
Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2) Pink Floyd 1979
Alison Elvis Costello And The Attractions 1977
Brass in Pocket The Pretenders 1979
Hit Me With Your Best Shot Pat Benatar 1980
Because The Night Patti Smith 1978
Barracuda Heart 1977
Sultans of Swing Dire Straits 1979
Mr. Blue Sky Electric Light Orchestra 1979
Badlands Bruce Springsteen 1978
Werewolves Of London Warren Zevon 1978
Ebony Eyes Bob Welch 1978
Running On Empty Jackson Browne 1978
Go Your Own Way Fleetwood Mac 1977
Don’t Do Me Like That Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers 1979
Who’s Crying Now Journey 1981
Roxanne The Police 1978
Cruel to Be Kind Nick Lowe 1979
Breakup Song Greg Kihn Band 1981
Come Sail Away Styx 1978
Carry On Wayward Son Kansas 1977
Hot Blooded Foreigner 1978
Lets Go The Cars 1979
One Way or Another Blondie 1979
Paradise By The Dashboard Light Meat Loaf 1977
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough Michael Jackson 1979
I’m Coming Out Diana Ross 1980
Dancing Queen Abba 1977
Stayin’ Alive Bee Gees 1978
Knock on Wood Amii Stewart 1979
Y.M.C.A. The Village People 1978
I Wanna Be Sedated The Ramones 1979
What I Like About You The Romantics 1980
Time Warp Original Soundtrack 1975
Whip It Devo 1980
Turning Japanese The Vapors 1980
Rock Lobster The B-52′s 1979
My Sharona Knack 1979
Dancin’ With Myself Billy Idol 1980
Surrender Cheap Trick 1978
September Earth, Wind & Fire 1979
The Rubberband Man Spinners 1977
Brick House Commodores 1977
Le Freak Chic 1979
I Will Survive Gloria Gaynor 1979
Celebration Kool & the Gang 1980
Rapper’s Delight Sugarhill Gang
Cars Gary Numan 1979
I Got You Split Enz 1980
Once in a Lifetime Talking Heads 1980
Jungle Love Steve Miller Band 1977
Tempted Squeeze 1981
Walk This Way Aerosmith 1975
Dance the Night Away Van Halen 1979
You Shook Me All Night Long AC/DC 1980
Bad Case of Lovin’ You Robert Palmer 1979
Video Killed the Radio Star The Buggles 1979
Pop Music M 1980
Ça Plane Pour Moi Plastic Bertrand
Lido Shuffle Boz Scaggs 1977
Dazz Brick 1977
I Love the Night Life Alicia Bridges 1979
Stomp Brothers Johnson 1980
Upside Down Diana Ross 1980
Funkytown Lipps, Inc 1980
(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty KC & the Sunshine Band 1976
We Are Family Sister Sledge 1979